Making Sorghum


sorghum millThere is something special about the first couple of weeks in October. Summer gardening is coming to a close, pumpkins are turning from dark green to bright orange. The air is changing from warm and moist to crisp and dry. Transition is happening in nature and in life. Sorghum making takes place during this period before freezing, but after those hot days of summer when the sorghum was thriving and growing. The cane that was planted in June is now mature and ready for harvest.  

Sorghum is a sweet, dark, heavy syrup made by cooking the juice squeezed from sorghum cane. Sorghum is a tall cane that looks similar to field corn and makes a cone-shaped seed head filled with BB-sized seeds. Similar to maple syrup, the sweet juice cooks down into syrup. It takes approximately 10 gallons of sorghum juice to make 1 gallon of syrup. Its qualities are somewhat like that of molasses and can be used in place of molasses in many recipes.

About Sorghum: What Exactly Is It? 

Occasionally sorghum is called molasses, especially by those who grew up with sorghum and always used it as molasses would be used. But, technically, molasses is derived only from the process of making cane sugar. Sorghum is made only from the juice of sorghum cane and is not a by-product. Sorghum is rich in minerals and has a complex flavor that makes it desirable to use in recipes, such as for barbecue sauce or baked beans, where lots of rich flavor is the goal. When made at home, every batch of sorghum turns out a little different, as there are many variables in the process. The variety of cane grown, the summer weather in which it grew, the maturity of the cane during harvest, the length of cooking, heat, skimming … all these things work together to offer a unique product each time. This is an incredible way to make a nutritious, tasty homemade sugar.  

The making of sorghum syrup can be accomplished by the help of a few people. It can become more than a farm chore if friends, neighbors and relatives alike join in the labor intensive, day-long cook-off. On our farm all helpers will be well fed during the event and have a jar of homemade syrup to take home with them at the end of the day. It just takes a day to see the harvested cane turn into a finished product!  

Growing Sorghum Cane

Though the event of harvest and cooking are done in late summer, the cane must be planted, thinned and fertilized in late May to early June. There are several seed varieties available. ‘Sugar Drip’ is a favorite among sorghum makers, but is sometimes hard to find if you do not know of a grower. (Visit our Seed and Plant Finder to find sources.) Most varieties should not cost more than about $7 per half pound. I’ve seen seed catalogs carrying sorghum seed packets containing only 50 seeds. This is useless for a harvest. For a small crop that can be processed in a day, you’ll need about 6 rows of cane, 100 feet in length thinned to 6 inches apart. This takes about a quarter pound of seed for sowing and then replanting in areas of poor germination. A reliable variety, ‘Rox Orange,’ is always available in bulk packaging from R. H. Shumway’s. Once you have mature seed heads, you will have more than enough seed for future plantings and to use for birdseed, as well. The cane should be fertilized and cultivated like a crop of corn. (See All About Growing Sweet Corn.) Irrigation should not be necessary in most climates under normal summer conditions.   

Making Sorghum 

Before the day of cooking sorghum, a lot of preparations must be made. You’ll need to gather firewood, and clean and repair the fireplace if necessary. Our fireplace is a fire pit surrounded on three sides with cinder blocks two high. It’s about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, built to support the stainless steel pan about that size. It sits perfectly on the cinder block platform. One narrow end of the platform is left open for adding firewood, and the opposite end is built out with cinder blocks for a 12-inch diameter, 6-foot tall stovepipe to ensure the fire has a good draw. It is best if the blocks are mostly level so that the juice sits evenly in the pan when cooking.    

9/25/2017 5:25:59 PM

Does anyone know why sorghum cane from reliable seed raised in new plowed turf that was previously a hay field would have sugar. The yield was one gallon to 20 of juice and the taste was a horrible salty bitter taste. The season was not overly rainy and the cane was ripe, seeds in the heads were hard. Have raised cane from this seed for years in the same area.

9/25/2017 5:25:58 PM

I have a question. Has anyone who makes Sorghum as you put it ever had juice that is not sweet, that made syrup that was bitter and salty tasting. Sorghum has been grown and made on my parents farm for 54 years and I have seen all kinds of syrup, from green to black and even frost bit, but this year the juice has no sugar, instead of one gallon from 10 of juice it was one from nearly 20 of juice and tasted horrible, this was from seed that has been saved for years and was originally sugar drip. The seeds in the head were hard so the cane was ripe, the ground was plowed up turf. The season was not overly rainy. Does anyone have an opinion of what could have happened.

Sherry Leverich Tucker
2/4/2011 8:25:42 PM

HannahRuthie; thank you for sharing the link. Fortunately, there are sorghum mills occasionally kept in city parks. At least that way there is a chance that someone, someday may organize a community sorghum making event. There used to be an annual event in which this was the case in a small community near us. Thanks for sharing, take care!

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